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October 21, 2013

Area shines light on domestic violence

Officials: Terms, laws change, but problem doesn't

By Cathy B. Koplen Contributing Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Domestic violence has been called "the hidden crime," but for some local officials, it's very present indeed.  

Lt. Douglas W. Brenner of the Oneonta City Police Department said in an interview Friday that the department does not specifically track domestic violence calls, as information is not cataloged in those terms. But, speaking from experience, he said roughly one quarter of all calls answered by the Oneonta City Police Department concern domestic violence. This corresponds with nationwide figures from the Centers for Disease Control, which reported in 2000 that 1 in every 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. 

“Sometimes it is the same people calling us over and over again,” Brenner said. “Sometimes it is a new case. There have been a lot of changes to the way we handle these calls since I started in 1988. Used to be we would try to counsel them, talk to them. If the victim did not want to press charges, then there was nothing we could do. Now, if there is cause, we can make an arrest.”

Brenner said if there are visible bruises, scratches or marks of any kind that correlate to the story told by the people involved, then an arrest can be made. Sometimes the violence is mutual and both parties are arrested.

“We try to help the victim any way we can,” Brenner said. “If it is a bad situation, we will call OFO (Opportunities For Otsego). They are great at responding.”

In observance of October as Domestic Violence Month, Opportunities for Otsego has been hard at work to bring "the hidden crime" out into the light. One of the missions OFO's Violence Prevention Program is to educate people about intimate partner abuse. The program is constantly working on new ways to help people understand that individuals have the right to their bodies, but without consent, no one else has the right to touch them.

Some of VIP's current campaigns include "No Means No," which describes how to handle a possible date rape situation by being proactive; "There are no Bystanders," offering information on how to prevent rape on another person; and "Break the Silence," a celebration of surviving and an honoring of those who lost their lives to domestic violence. On Thursday, OFO will present "In Her Shoes," an interactive simulation that includes scenarios from the real lives of women with abusive partners. (The event is open only to those who have registered in advance.) 

Part of VIP's mission means being there to help victims of abuse in all its forms. 

“'Intimate partner violence' is a term that covers many different scenarios, from gay partners to boyfriend and girlfriend situations,” said Will Rivera, program manager for Opportunities For Otsego’s Violence Intervention Program. “Abuse comes in many different forms. There is financial abuse, where one partner withholds information and access to the household budget and tries to control the other partner by not allowing access to money or activities. This goes along with trying to isolate the victim. The person abusing is making it clear he is in charge and if things don’t go his way, the abuse can get more intense." 

Rivera was quick to note that, despite his use of the male pronoun, domestic violence isn't limited to male-on-female crime. 

"I say he, but it doesn’t always have to be a male perpetrator," Rivera said, "although it is a male more often than not.”

During October, OFO has invited area businesses to "paint" their business purple and display a purple ribbon to show support for those who have survive domestic violence. In addition, these business display information about the Violence Prevention Programs available. 

Rivera said he gave out strings of purple lights, purple ribbons and an information flyer with a bar code to dozens of businesses in Oneonta, including The Green Earth. 

“I have seen it (abuse) and it is terrible,” said Lisa Cooper, daytime manager at The Green Earth. “It is not something that people are really that aware of though, because it goes on behind closed doors most of the time. People here have to work so hard just to make ends meet. It is hard. And then, when you throw in alcohol and drugs – then things can get ugly. I have seen what happens. People need to know there is someone out there who really cares, someone who can help them get out of that abusive situation. They have to get help to break the cycle of abuse.”

“We never judge,” Rivera said. “We always support whatever decision the victim makes. We give them information and we advocate for them through the legal system. We have a 24/7 hotline, counseling services and a fully staffed, secure safe-house where we can accommodate up to nine individuals. In our advocacy program we help them navigate the system — orders of protection, criminal court proceedings, custody and child support. We also have referrals to other agencies that can help with money, temporary housing, education, and other things.”

Rivera said in 2012 there were 1,462 calls made to the hotline, 111 new cases were opened that had no former history of reported domestic violence, 3,112 counseling sessions, 973 legal advocacy service cases, 2,615 referrals to other agencies and 66 people seeking temporary shelter in the safe house.

When a call comes into the hotline, trained individuals help the person navigate decisions. If there is a crises occurring as the person is on the phone, a call is immediately placed to 911. Often the victim is calling after a violent incident.

“Sometimes there is a call from the hospital,” Rivera said. “If that is the case, an advocate will go to the hospital. If the caller has been raped and has not gone to the hospital, we recommend they go right away to get checked and to collect any information necessary. We meet them there.”

If the person calling wants to leave an abusive situation, but cannot find the resolve, the crises team will help them put into place a safety plan that includes pre-packed bags and a location that is safe. In addition, it includes a list of things, such as medicines, toiletries, food, plans for children and pets as well as a trusted individual that can help the victim with their immediate needs or to offer them moral support.

“Some people will not leave,” Rivera said. “They are afraid because of financial insecurities or because they are afraid they may lose their children, or they do not have alternative housing.”

Rivera said it takes between five and seven times attempting to leave a violent situation before many victims can leave for good.

For more information about the programs available through Opportunities For Otsego, call the main office at 433-8038 or visit www.ofoinc.org. The number for the Victims Intervention Program 24-hour hotline is 432-4855.